Europe: Journalists must be better protected as press freedom declines

Europe: Journalists must be better protected as press freedom declines - Media

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The year 2022 was defined by war. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine became the most acute manifestation of the ongoing shrinking of civic space in Europe and further deteriorated the environment for press freedom. While journalists working on the frontline were thrown into a situation of imminent life danger, their colleagues outside the war zone were facing a vast arsenal of methods deployed to silence independent journalism, including legal threats, restrictive legislation, detention and surveillance.

ARTICLE 19 joins the Partner Organisations of the Council of Europe’s Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists in publishing our 2023 annual report ‘War in Europe and the fight for the right to report’. The report examines the main threats to media freedom in Europe and addresses recommendations to the Council of Europe, the European Union and their member states on actions needed to tackle these challenges.

Read the report

Since Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine, at least 12 journalists and media workers were killed and 21 were injured while performing their journalistic duties. One journalist, Güngör Arslan in Turkey, was killed outside of a war zone, in comparison to 4 in the previous year. Overall, throughout 2022, the Platform documented 289 alerts concerning 37 countries, with journalists being murdered, imprisoned, physically attacked, legally harassed, and subjected to smear campaigns.

The repeatedly belated and insufficient responses to the alerts documented in our monitoring – replies were filed for merely 48 alerts – raise serious concerns about the member states’ commitment to seriously uphold their obligations under the Council of Europe’s statute and the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, none of the 26 active alerts on the Platform regarding impunity for murder cases moved to the ‘progress’ or ‘resolved’ status.

More of the key findings of the report:

Several European states have been using the judiciary to punish, scare or silence journalists. The hammer of repression has fallen particularly hard on Belarusian journalists. By the end of the year, 32 Belarusian journalists were in jail on trumped-up or politically motivated charges;

Abusive legal threats and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) remained one of the major challenges to free speech, contributing to an atmosphere of intimidation and legal bullying. The Platform documented at least 20 defamation and other types of legal proceedings. Notably, concerning developments have unfolded in Italy. The country not only failed to decriminalise libel, but Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pursued her lawsuit against investigative journalist Roberto Saviano;

The growing security concerns exacerbated by the Russian invasion have provided ammunition to those governments that are bent on excessively and unduly restricting journalists’ right to report on matters they consider relavent to national security. For example, in the United Kingdom, the government put forward a highly criticised National Security Bill.

Read the report

Key recommendations

To the Council of Europe

  • Adopt the Recommendation on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) by 2024 and promote and monitor its implementation in member states;
  • Put forward a priority list of legal and practical protections for the safety of journalists and the protection of journalism as guidelines for National Action Plans and the safety of journalists’ campaigns in member states, with a focus on reforms of law enforcement and judicial processes to eradicate impunity.

To the member states of the Council of Europe

  • Review laws, policies, and practices with particular attention to SLAPPs, and adopt comprehensive anti-SLAPP legislation;
  • Put in place effective measures of protection when journalists are subject to imminent threats of physical harm;
  • Adopt National Action Plans for the Safety of Journalists;
  • Establish mechanisms to trigger emergency protection, drawing on good practice such as the Persveilig mechanism in the Netherlands or Italy’s system of police protection for media workers under serious threat from organised crime.

To the institutions of the European Union

  • Ensure that the pending draft EU anti-SLAPP Directive is broad and robust and make adoption of effective legislation a priority
  • Secure the adoption of the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) and ensure it contains strong provisions against external interference and protects the editorial independence of the media
  • Strengthen the Rule of Law Report of the European Commission